Monday, October 21, 2013

Proto Meta Mega Horror

It was meta decades before Wes Craven's Scream. It was a loving homage to the horror genre years before Joe Dante's Matinee. It featured monster-battling fanboy protagonists long before Fright Night, Popcorn or even Neon Maniacs. Hell, it even had a 13-year old Fred Dekker as a fan extra in a convention scene. And it's gone virtually unnoticed by everyone, including me - a horror fan, former Bay Area resident and one of the few people around old enough to have watched John Stanley on Creature Features back in the day.


For October, I decided to watch nothing but vampire movies all month long as an excuse to revisit some classic favorites, maybe find some obscure gems, and hopefully, reassure myself the sub-genre still had something to offer. Over two dozen movies in, after pulling a Bob Kelljan hat trick with Scream Blacula Scream and his two Count Yorga movies, and suffering through two incredibly amateurish pieces of homemade junk called Just the Vampire Hunter and Vampire of Quezon City, I was beginning to despair. Sure, I had revisited the great 1931 version of Dracula and discovered the sequel to Vampire Hunter D to be even better than the original, but had yet to be rewarded with that special kind of off-the-radar film often found in these sub-genre scavenger hunts. However, I soon stumbled upon a movie that, although not great, was nevertheless made with the love that can only come from a true fan of the horror genre.

1977's Nightmare in Blood captured my attention at the outset with what looked to be the climax of a Hammer film featuring a fight between a vampire hunter and his quarry. As the camera pulled back on the action and the shot switched to the inside of a movie theater, where the projectionist was then killed, I realized I was seeing one of the great, unsung meta moments in horror movie history. And if that wasn't self aware enough, one of the titles on the theater's marquee was the name of the film I was currently watching. Suck it, Craven. The film continued on from there to be an outright love letter, not only to the horror movie genre, but to horror comics and conventions as well. At a time when conventions were in their infancy, comic books were dime-a-piece disposable rags and people who loved horror films were considered weird or disturbed, Nightmare in Blood, was an unabashed, self-aware, prescient, mash note to the fans.

Directed by former Bay Area KTVU Creature Features host, John Stanley, Nightmare in Blood, wears its horror-loving heart on its sleeve, and although the references may seem obvious to even casual fans, it feels so good to see and hear them dropped throughout the entire film. From the wall to wall movie posters, to a horror comic history slideshow primer, to mentions of Price, Lee, Lugosi and Karloff, it never grows old or gets laid on too thick. There's a humorous undertone to the film, but it's all in the spirit of fun and entertainment which is ultimately the movie's message.

The story is set at a San Francisco horror convention and involves three organizers, a Vincent Price-like icon, a horror-hating film critic/crusader, a zen-like comic book store owner and a Jewish vampire hunter. It's not a spoiler to reveal that the horror movie icon, Malakai (played with Price-like gusto and appropriate method diva-ness by Jerry Walter), is actually a vampire who intends to kill while at the convention with the help of his pseudo-publicist henchmen, BB and Harris. The convention organizer characters are refreshingly mature, grown-ups instead of the typical obnoxious teens that are ubiquitous in modern horror and are played by Barrie Youngellow as Cindy, Dan Caldwell as Professor Seabrook and John Cochran as Scotty. The best known actor in the film is Youngfellow, who co-starred in the long running 80's sitcom, It's a Living and did a lot of guest spots on shows during the 70's. She's quite likable and spunky in a role she won out over Suzanne Somers. While Youngfellow and Walter are the class of the ensemble and clearly the most experienced, there are fun, if unpolished performances put in by others as well including Justin Bishop as the anti-horror crusader, Dr Unworth.

The production is a low budget, indie affair and that's where its achilles heel is evident - the film looks like an inexpensive mid-70's production with cheaper film stock, unreliable lighting, poorly looped ADR and the occasional rough editing. The tone is whiplash-inducing with characters like a dopey theater usher (complete with his own goofy theme music) occupying the same cinematic space with a grim story about the holocaust and some brutal murders. The pacing is similarly uneven and bogs down at times with an ending that moves maybe too fast. The film does benefit mightily though from many of the San Francisco and Oakland locations like the old coastal artillery emplacements in the hills near the Golden Gate Bridge, the Rialto theater and the KTVU studios. The script by Stanley and Kenn Davis is very knowing and not only includes all kinds of hat tips to horror, but is humorously prescient when it derides its critics in the form of Dr Unworth, the convention protester/crusader and author of the fictitious anti-comic book tome "The Rape of the Young Mind". Also way ahead of its time was the inclusion of Jedi-like/comic book guru character, Gary, who drops wisdom like, "Men will turn to ashes, comics will prevail."

All in all, its a very flawed film, but its heart is in such the right place and it got there so long before anyone else, it's very difficult not to forgive the missteps and feel a tremendous amount of affection and respect for it.
Score 6.75/10

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